SINGAPORE — A blogger who sought to reinstate his counterclaim against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had his appeal dismissed on Friday (27 September).
Leong Sze Hian argued through his lawyer Lim Tean in the Court of Appeal that PM Lee had improperly brought about a civil suit to silence him and to “gag political speech”.
“He may be a litigant in person but he is bringing libel action to protect the reputation of his government, his libel actions have a chilling effect on free speech,” Lim told a panel of three judges comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, and Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Judith Prakash.
Lim claimed that Leong was among “10,000 people” who had shared the allegedly defamatory article and he was the only one to be sued by PM Lee.
Leong had shared an article entitled "Breaking News: Singapore Lee Hsien Loong Becomes 1MDB's Key Investigation Target - Najib Signed Several Unfair Agreements With Hsien Loong In Exchange for Money Laundering" on Facebook on 7 November last year. The article was published by Malaysian website The Coverage.
“We have a case of the prime minister exercising the highest form of selectivism to determine who (the) recipient of libel claim will be and in this case it is directed at a prominent critic of the government who has written well over 2,000 articles over the years,” said Lim in front of a packed courtroom.
However, CJ Menon said that it was accepted in civil law that a plaintiff could choose who to target.
“You seem to think there is something sinister there, but it is a common precept in civil law as to how a plaintiff wishes to conduct his litigation. You know that,” he added.
In the ruling to dismiss Leong’s application, CJ Menon said on on behalf of the panel, “A plaintiff in a defamation action is entitled to invoke the aid of the court to vindicate his interests if he is at the receiving end of a defamatory publication. The courts cannot limit the rights of injured parties to access the courts, even if they happen to be public figures.”
CJ Menon said he “could not get his head around the idea” that an individual who has defamed a party can in turn sue the defamed party for bringing libel action against him.
“We are here dealing with the case on your proposition that even if I have defamed, I have a right to sue.”
Judge Phang remarked that those seeking to sue would think twice about bringing legal action if it would lead to them being countersued.
“If that is the case and there is a chilling effect, then the freedom of speech you so strongly advocate, and which is such a central part of our Constitution, will be open to abuse.”
Lim said that if his client were to be found to have libelled PM Lee, then the defence will “fall away”.
PM Lee used state machinery: Lim Tean
Lim alleged that the PM was using “state machinery”, including the Infocomm Media Development Authority, the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the Minister of Law in his suit.
The lawyer, who is the leader of opposition party Peoples Voice, pointed out that IMDA served a notice to Leong for him to remove his post, and he deleted the post less than three days later. Leong was served a letter of demand by PM Lee’s counsel Davinder Singh two days later.
To laughter from the audience, Judge Phang asked Lim, “Mr Singh doesn’t belong to the government machinery, I think he’s being paid, Mr Singh, you don’t have to answer, how is he part of public machinery?”
To which Lim replied, “I’m not saying that, your Honour.”
Judge Prakash asked Lim whether he was suggesting that a public servant who has been defamed has to be treated by the court differently.
Leong filed a counterclaim against PM Lee last year in response to the latter initiating the libel suit.
Dismissing the application, Justice Aedit Abdullah said previously that there were “ample legal mechanisms” in civil procedure where innocent parties could get legal recourse in the event that there was an abuse of process by the other party.